Solidarity in a time of fear

I’m still asking those fatuous question, ‘How are you? Are you alright?’ Most people say ‘yes,’ then add, ‘not really.’

We’re not OK. Cruelty, pain, fear and fury are at loose, and our hearts ache.

What do we do? We’re probably not the people making the big decisions. So how can we make a difference? Through solidarity, kindness and keeping on going.

I’ve no words to add about the cruelty of Hamas. It’s premeditated, beyond disgusting, indescribable, yet must, in truth’s name, be described.

The pain is what possesses me, the pain of the hostages and their families, the pain of the bereaved. I’ve been staring at the picture of a young Israeli couple, beautiful, in love, – now slaughtered, their children orphans. What can one say?

‘You can quantify many things,’ a sympathetic Muslim colleague told me, ‘but you can’t quantify pain.’ And one person’s pain doesn’t negate another person’s pain. The pain of a child in Gaza with nowhere to flee is its own distinctive pain. It all adds up to a vast, immeasurable hurt. Except that pain can’t be added up either. Pain is personal; it spears the heart.

There’s rage. Where there’s abominable hurt there’s bound to be vast anger. It’s inevitable, human, understandable. Not acceptable is how so many people, not connected with the pain, ignorant of the issues, jump on the bandwagon of hate and spit on other people’s wounds.

I fear what these furies, if ungoverned, will bring to birth, what new monstrosities are right now being conceived to savage future generations, what

…shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs… (Yeats)

There’s fear, for family and friends in Israel, for our community, for school and university students, for everyone alone. I wish it wasn’t needed, but thank God for the Community Security Trust, working 24/7 to protect us, and which even at this bitter time extends its work against racism to Muslim and other communities.

Antisemitic attacks have risen off the scales. Hate crimes against Muslims have doubled. ‘I’m afraid of using public transport,’ several fellow Jews have told me. So have Muslim women. Jewish pupils have said they feel frightened, shunned and alone. So, to my initial surprise, have some Muslim leaders. Maybe our very fear and pain can bring us together to call out against hatred, at least here in Britain.

So what can we do? We must show and live in solidarity. Thousands need us, and we need them. We must keep in frequent touch with Israeli family, colleagues, friends in the army, friends whose children have been called up. We must reach out with heart and hands across the Jewish world; we must give.

Solidarity begins with loyalty to our own people. But its roots lie even deeper, in what it means to be human. I’ve spoken to Muslim and Christian leaders who seek that solidarity too, the roots of which lie in the very depths of humanity and God, and from which, if it’s to come at all, healing must ultimately spring.

We must be kind. Chesed, loving, enduring kindness, sounds weak in response to terror. It’s not. It’s a way of life. It requires constancy, generosity, forbearance and the courage to stay present amidst pain. It demands our time, commitment and heart.

We must keep going. We mustn’t forsake the wells from which we draw strength. I find them in prayer, not because I expect heaven to send miracles, but because our ancestors speak through the words and music, telling of their unyielding resilience and the presence of God. I find strength in community, nature and keeping busy.

Whatever the source of our spirit, we mustn’t forsake it. From it we draw the deep strength to guide us beyond fear and panic to care for one another.

Not alone: hopes and prayers in these times of deepest distress

Two people reached out to me unexpectedly last week. The first was Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, who called me in the days after the horrors perpetrated by Hamas. Years ago, we’d walked together through the centre of London leading a protest against racist violence of all forms.

‘We need to do something he said.’ That was the start of conversations which led to his public condemnation of antisemitism and my response to him in the presence, and with the strong support, of Archbishop Justin Welby. ‘We’re all on the side of life,’ I concluded. (Click here to read the statements in full).

The second person was a woman walking behind me on Lambeth Palace Road. I’d paused to put my backpack down on a bench when she turned to me: ‘I’m so glad to see you wearing your kippah round here,’ she said, starting to cry. ‘I’m Jewish and I’m so afraid.’ My heart went out to her. My heart goes out the many who feel as she does.

I’ve thought repeatedly this week of those pictures one finds in old Haggadot of a man rowing a boat crossing a wide river. They’re illustrations of ‘Avram Ha’Ivri, Abraham the Hebrew.’ Ivri derives from ever, meaning bank or side. As the rabbis put it: ‘All the world on one side, and Abraham on the other.’

I feel for everyone who finds themselves alone at this extraordinarily difficult time, especially students, especially pupils in non-Jewish schools, especially those working in places where there are no fellow Jews. How many times I’ve heard: ‘There’s a wall of silence around me; even my friends don’t ask.’ Or those seeming friends post something vile on Instagram.

I feel, too, for everyone for whom the pogroms by Hamas have re-awoken the traumas of the Shoah and earlier ages.

We must reach out to each other; we must open our doors, our kitchens, our hearts. Over and again, I hear from friends in Israel: ‘What’s not let us down is our society. Everyone’s helping. Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel lives.’ We, too, must be in sustained contact with our family, friends and colleagues in Israel, and with each other.

And we must try to reach further. Despite the mass rallies, the hatred and the disgusting social media, we do have friends. I’ve had many messages of solidarity, from Christian groups especially, but also from other faiths, and from acquaintances near and far.

Wherever possible we must build with these relationships. Cruel as the times are, we must not solely hunker down in distrust, fear and anger. We must find those with whom we can stand together in a deeper, more embracing humanity. I believe in God who is ‘Elohai haruchot lechol bassar, God of the spirits of all flesh.’

We must not lose our hope or our deepest Jewish, humanitarian values. Beyond war there has to be a different vision. All the people I’m close to feel deep pity for everyone across Israel and the Jewish world who is grief-stricken, traumatised, desperate for the release of family members taken hostage. At the same time, we also feel great pity for the poor people caught up in their thousands in Gaza, who want nothing to do with Hamas and who are, in a different way, also hostages, struggling to escape with their lives, their children.

We pray, for all our sakes, for a better outcome than the creation of the next generation of fear and hate. I think of Zechariah’s prophetic words, lo vechayil velo vecho’ach ki im beruchi. What they mean to me today is: Neither power nor force will help unless guided by My spirit, says our God.

My feelings were summed up when I listened to my colleague Nathalie Lastreger, rabbi of Kfar Veradim in the far north of Israel, as she struggled to keep singing the HaTikvah through her flowing tears: Od lo avdah tikvateinu, Our hope has not ceased.’

Hope itself must never cease.

A Prayer

In the midst of our own trauma, grief and anguish, we do not lose sight of Judaism’s supreme values of chesed and rachamim, loving kindness and mercy.

We protest and pray for the release of all the hostages and for their safe return to their longing and desperate families. We pray for a minimum of casualties in the IDF, and among all civilians, in Israel’s war against the terrorist organisation Hamas. We pray for strength for everyone, across the whole of Israel’s society and the Jewish world, who gives shelter and support to the tens of thousands evacuated from their homes and to everyone traumatised and grief-stricken by Hamas’ barbaric attack.

Our God is the God of all life. We pray, too, for the safety of all the many, many thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians caught up in this horror, who desperately need food, water and medical aid. Their plight is unimaginable. They desperately need a safe escape route from the fighting. We ask and pray for a humanitarian corridor to be established, maintained and safely supervised. We pray for a better future of life, hope and freedom for them too.

Our prayers are with the remarkable people who devote themselves to saving lives, wherever they are. We pray for all who, despite the fear and hostility, recognise the image of God in all the victims of this terrible conflict and who work for healing on all sides.

We pray, too, for our society here in Britain, that we should not be the targets of antisemitism, that all forms of race and religious hatred and prejudice be overcome, that we should work together in solidarity for a safe and harmonious future for all.

Even as continued fighting seems inevitable, we pray that a better way will swiftly be found than war with all its unspeakable horrors, so that Israel and its neighbours can live together in safety and peace, with life and hope for everyone.

In These Terrible Times

Elohei haruchot lechol basar – Our God and God of the spirits of all flesh, send us, all Israel, our Jewish People across the world, and all humanity, strength, resilience, wisdom, courage, compassion, vision and hope in these terrible days.

I’m filled with horror, pain and disgust for what has been perpetrated by Hamas. I feel trepidation over what is now coming.

Last Shabbat was the worst day in Jewish history since the Shoah. There are no adequate words.

In their cunning and brutal mercilessness, Hamas’s terrorist mass murders were an attack on Israel, on Jews, on humanity itself, on every value and feeling that makes us truly human.

Yesterday I was on a call with a number of Israeli colleagues. ‘I’m safe,’ said a friend from Jerusalem, ‘But I’m not OK.’ How can one be? There is searing trauma across the country. Rabbis are conducting funeral after funeral. Their children have been called up, some to units whose task is to identify the dead.

Our hearts and prayers are with everyone grieving for murdered relatives and friends, in Israel, and across the world, including in our own community.

Our intense and heartfelt prayers are for the hostages, small children, old people, a woman who came on the Kindertransport, and for their desperate families. May God, who teaches that no one is more vulnerable than a hostage, and that pidyon shevu’im, the redemption of captives, takes precedence over every other cause, bring about their speedy release and safe return to their homes.

We pray for everyone wounded and traumatised, for the medical teams caring for them, for those arranging logistics and care, for everyone in Israel and across the world supporting others in their pain and anguish.

Our prayers are with Israel’s soldiers, for their safety in what will now ensue in the battle against Hamas, and for an absolute minimum of casualties.

Our prayers for human life have no political borders. We pray for the ordinary people of Gaza, helplessly caught up in this war, who want nothing to do with terrorism, but only safety, a future, life. May they find safe refuge, food and water. Israel is at war with Hamas, not with them.

We pray for safety for all our communities across the world.

We pray for a better future for everyone, one day, soon.

From where do we take strength at this time?

Firstly, from each other. ‘Zeh mechamem at halev – it warms the heart,’ said Rabbi Idit Lev, referring to how people are caring for each other, offering their homes to others forced to leave the south, bringing food to elderly people who cannot go far from their safe rooms. In a pause between sirens, said Rabbi Michael from Beer Sheva (who was formerly at Edgware Masorti) ‘I take food to Bedouin families.’ Here, too, our gathering both in person and on line, are a source of support to us all. We need to reach out to everyone isolated, whether geographically or emotionally, especially university students and children.

Our relationships with friends, leaders and communities of different faiths are also profoundly important at this time. Some people have told me of the support they have received. Others report that they have had none.

We draw strength from Torah, ‘a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.’ The Torah’s teachings, and the devotion of Jews across millennia to studying and following them, are the secret of the endurance, resilience and creativity of the Jewish People.

We draw strength from our values. Even, and especially, at this terrible time, we must not forget our core teachings: that every human being is created in God’s image; that we must try to honour and foster that sacred presence in each other (the very opposite of what terrorist and terrorising organisations seek to do); that justice and compassion are the supreme human qualities.

We draw strength from God’s world, its beauty, despite everything, its music, its call to us to love and protect it and not destroy it.

However deeply challenged, these remain the core of the Jewish faith and way of life.

I will conclude with the striking words from my colleague in the north of Israel, Raba Nathalie Lastreger: We need each other and we all need both oz va’anavah, both robust strength and inner humility at this terrible time.

Hoshana Rabba – Who Saves?

Once again today, as on Yom Kippur, the greeting is Gmar Tov, ‘A good ending’: May we, our communities, our country and the world be sealed for a good destiny. In rabbinic tradition Hoshana Rabba is the day of the final closing of the books, when the blessings and challenges, the rainfall and drought, for the year ahead are determined. Once again, the leader wears white and for one last time we hear the deep melodies of the High Holydays.

I do not take these concepts literally, but they express the deep reverence I have for this day, and the respect and love I feel for its powerful, unusual prayers. As long as he lived, I would go to synagogue with my father on Hoshana Rabba: it was our special time together before God.

I was up early, as one has to be on Hoshana Rabba. I woke with the rabbis’ ancient question in my mind, ‘What was God doing before creating this earth?’ The answer they give is: ‘God was busy creating and destroying other worlds.’ In my head, too, was that line from the liturgy which predates astrophysics by millennia: ‘Toleh erets al blimah, – God suspends the earth over nothingness.’ A similar thought must have gripped the scientist and poet Rachel Elson, who wrote the marvellous line: ‘We astronomers honour our responsibility to awe.’

So where is our world going? Toward what destiny are we headed?

One word and one line are repeated over and again in the ancient litany of today. The word is ‘Hoshana, Save!’ It’s as plain a cry to God as language can produce. The line is only slightly longer: Ani Vaho Hoshi’ana, – I and God, let us save.’ The single word places all the burden on the divine; the line understands that responsibility as shared: What can you and I, what can God and we, do together to save our world?

There is nothing banal or generalised about the pleas which follow. They are the beseeching of people who know their vulnerability, the pleas of subsistence growers, tenant farmers, viticulturists, pilgrims all, who well understand the perils which beset them:

Save sinew, bone and skin; save the winepress and the standing corn; save with strong, healing rains that give life to forsaken lands…

The prayers are the petitions, too, of a nation which knows persecution, of communities who ‘understand the soul of the refugee,’ They are the cries of the asylum-seekers of previous centuries, small-boat people of all generations:

Save the exiled and cast out; save those scattered among those who hate them…

Though each brief prayer is punctuated by the cry Hoshana, the final line is Ani vaHo, We and God: what can we and the divine, what can each of us, inspired and chastened by the presence of God in each other and all life, achieve together? What can we do for our beautiful, joyous world, beleaguered by suffering and injustice. What can we save?

Just as Neil’ah holds the paradox that at the closing of Yom Kippur we pray for the opening of the gates, so, despite the greeting ‘a good ending’, Hoshana Rabba calls us not to a fate already sealed but to a new beginning. It tasks us with the fashioning of a different and better collective destiny, to which we, all humanity together with God, must devote our grit, determination, inspiration, body, mind and soul.

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